by Jacob Musial
By 7000 BC, the forests that had begun to replace tundra during Paleoindian times had become quite dense, and the Champlain Sea had transformed into the freshwater Lake Champlain that exists today. People adjusted to this changed environment by greatly diversifying their subsistence strategies, transitioning from a heavy reliance on large mammals to a mixed diet of deer, small mammals, aquatic resources birds, reptiles, and edible plants.
This period, described as Archaic, make up the bulk of Vermont’s prehistory, and many of ways of life established in the Archaic persisted up until the arrival of Europeans in the 17th century. The Archaic is subdivided into three sub-periods: the Early Archaic (7000-5500 BC), the Middle Archaic (5500-4000 BC), and the Late Archaic (4000-1000 BC).
Early and Middle Archaic Periods
Little is known about the Early and Middle Archaic periods in Vermont, but the discovery of one Middle Archaic point at Crystal Beach on Lake Bomoseen, attests to the presence of people in the Poultney area back then. From what is known about the Early and Middle Archaic in the Northeast, it can be assumed that they built dugout canoes; hunted with light spears tipped with “side notched” points, which were thrown using spear throwers, or atlatls; and relied heavily on course scraping and cutting tools, which could be quickly made and modified.
Throughout the Early and Middle Archaic periods, the population of Vermont was comparatively small, and may have been centered in Champlain Valley—so the Early and Middle Archaic populations in the Poultney area were probably as insignificant and transitory as they had been in the Paleoindian period.
By the end of the Middle Archaic period, however, the plant and animal species of Vermont had become much more diverse and plentiful: wetlands formed, animal populations increased, and nut-producing trees became more common. Because of these changes, the population of Vermont exploded during the Late Archaic, and it was probably during this period that the first sizeable human population inhabited the region surrounding Poultney.
Late Archaic Period
The Late Archaic is by far the most well represented archeological period in the Poultney area. The vast majority of the artifacts discovered by Levi Pratt near Lake St. Catherine and Little Lake, and a large percentage of the artifacts discovered by Ryland Benford and other collectors around Lake Bomoseen, are diagnostic of the Late Archaic.
Between 3000 BC and 2500 BC the area surrounding Poultney and other uplands of Southwestern Vermont appears to have become particularly hospitable to life, allowing a comparatively large human population to form in the Poultney area.
By 1500 BC, however, it seems the climate of the uplands become less hospitable to life and the human population of the Poultney area may have dropped dramatically at this time, perhaps for as long as the next 2000 years.
Regardless of why people chose to live in the Poultney area during the Late Archaic, and when (or if) they stopped living here, it is fairly clear how and where they lived. The Poultney Historical Society is in possession of a collection of Late Archaic artifacts found on the J. Harold Griffith Farm, on Lily Pond in South Poultney, during the middle of the 20thcentury. From these artifacts, and the other Late Archaic artifacts found in the area, it is possible to form a picture of what life was like during this period.
During the Late Archaic period, people in the Poultney area appear to have selected campsites at strategic locations within close proximity to Lake St. Catherine and Lake Bomoseen. From these campsites they had ready access to aquatic and marshland species, as well as to larger animals like moose and deer.
In addition to hunting and fishing, Late Archaic people gathered edible botanicals like nuts and seeds. These were collected and stored in containers made of wood or bark, bags made of hide, or woven baskets, and crushed into meal with pestles like the one above. Edible botanicals were probably a staple of the Late Archaic diet, but Late Archaic people in Vermont did not use pottery, and most of the vessels used for the gathering and storage of botanicals disintegrated long ago.
Towards the end of the Late Archaic people began to use bowls carved out of soapstone. Ryland Benford and his daughter Florence found one of these bowls in 1935, buried under a sandpit in Lake Bomoseen. Soapstone bowls, however, are rare in Vermont and many containers were probably made in the same way as dugout canoes—by hollowing out logs with fire and scraping out the charcoal with adzes like the one shown above.
Dugout canoes were a central feature of Late Archaic life, used for hunting, fishing, traveling, and many other day-to-day activities. To Late Archaic people living in the Poultney area, the Poultney and other local rivers were the equivalent of Routes 30, 22A, and the other roads that connect Poultney to the rest of the region.
On these rivers Late Archaic peoples traveled to different seasonal campsites and made journeys to trade with neighboring peoples. It is not clear how far Late Archaic people in Vermont traveled away from their homeland in the Champlain and Connecticut valleys, but it is certain that they were connected, however indirectly, to the rest of North America.
During the Late Archaic, people in Vermont acquired items and materials that originated hundreds and even thousands of miles away. Through down-the-line exchange networks, adzes and beads made of copper from the Great Lakes and shells from the Caribbean passed from one community to the next until made their way to Vermont.
People in Vermont also adopted technologies that seem to have originated in southern New York and Pennsylvania. Small-stemmed projectile points, like the one shown above, originated in southern New York and are common in New York and Southern New England. Likewise, Otter Creek Points, like the one shown above, may have originated in Vermont, and they have been found throughout the Northeast.
Late Archaic Vermonters also adopted religious and cultural practices, like burial customs, from their neighbors. In most cases technologies and cultural practices were probably spread by diffusion along exchange networks, and it is unlikely that there were any major influx of peoples from other regions into Vermont during this period.
The Poultney area was at the center of what has been called the Vergennes Archaic tradition of western Vermont, and the most famous Vergennes Archaic site—the Ketchams Island site—was discovered on an island in a marshy area of Otter Creek near Rutland, and excavated in part by a Poultney resident.
The Vergennes Archaic is characterized by broad Otter Creek Points; ground slate technology, including spear points and knives called ulus (probably used to prepare fish); plummets, which may have been used as weights for fishing nets or bolas; heavy and finely decorated atlatl weights, which were used to adjust the trajectory of the spears and darts thrown from atlatls; and a variety of woodworking tools, including gouges, adzes, and celts (axe-like tools).
There is some evidence that suggests that the Vergennes Archaic originated from what is known as the Maritime Archaic of Coastal New England, which is characterized by a similar tool kit. It is possible that there were some population movements into Vermont from the Maritime regions of northern New England during the Late Archaic, and it is also possible that the Vergennes Archaic and the Maritime Archaic are inland and coastal manifestations of the same culture, but there is not enough evidence to confirm either of these theories.
What is clear is that during the Late Archaic people in the Poultney area and the rest of Vermont were strongly influenced by neighboring peoples. In many ways the people who lived in Vermont were unique, but they did not hesitate to adopt innovations developed in other regions.
Click the image to advance the slideshow.